It’s Sunday morning in her kitchen and Alice is boisterous in that dozy kind of way she sometimes is after a good night out, still drunk, thinking and talking in pop song rhythms, BAPPA MAMMA BIP/BAPPA MAPPA BOOM, as she makes the toast and brews the tea, meanwhile the cross-worshippers in the distance striking up the band with a muffled HALLELUJA BIP BAM BOO.
“You believe in God, Gerry?”
“You believe in God?”
“I don’t even believe in Sunday!”
Alice has a flash picture of Little Bo Beep. Then he’s in the kitchen, stroking the back of her neck. She smells cigarettes on his breath.
“Listen to them,” he whispers, and her spine tingles. “I mean just listen to that shit, all that cheap redemption crap. They’re all dead, like Sunday. The other lot too, kneeling shoeless with their ragged-up heads bowed towards Mecca.”
He walks to the window and shouts across the courtyard towards Alamandera Mansions: “Fifteen Quid on the Hashasheen’s nose and lose the f**king lot. Like I did yesterday. That’s Mecca for you.”
Then he’s back at her side and smiling, arms round her waist, a soft kiss to the cheek. She pulls away and pours the tea.
“I wish you wouldn’t gamble, Gerry. We needed that money,” she tells him, a possibility of tears in her voice.
“There are those who kneel and there are those who deal,” he replies, rummaging in the fridge. He finds a carton of orange juice. “Anyway you can go out and get some more, can’t you? A bit later, maybe.”
She lays a cup of tea in front of him on the worktop.
“You got any cigs, I’m out.”
It’s not a question.
“On the floor by the bed,” says Alice, “get me one too.”
In the bedroom Gerry takes two cigarettes from the packet, lights them and puts the packet in his pocket. From her shoe, half hidden beneath the bed he takes two twenty pound notes and puts those also into his pocket. Back in the kitchen he passes her one of the cigarettes, takes a long drag on the other and lets the smoke sigh out.
“They’re out there Alice, they’re out there all right, waiting, keeping order in the courtyards and the squares, hustling for the muezzins, just as sure as those Jesus freaks with their dead-beat tambourines.”
“What’s one of them, Gerry?”
“A mue… whatever you call it.”
He smiles, swallows a piece of dry toast and swigs a mouthful of tea.
He leads her out to the hallway and the front door. Opening it, he gestures to a gap in the paintwork on the outside door frame:
“You see that? You know what that is? I’ll tell you. Before you came here, before the Bengalis arrived, these flats were mostly let to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They have… it’s part of their religion – Jew voodoo, if you like – these little containers attached to their door posts with small parchments inside inscribed with religious texts, supposed to scare off evil spirits or something. Anyway, along come the Muslims. They don’t like the jews, so they form themselves into gangs and start roaming the estates at night, nicking all these little cases from the Hebrews’ doors. They take them to their bosses, the muezzins, and they break them open, take out the parchments and use them in their rituals, make mezuzah soup out of them, which they sell to the Christians from their corner shops. The soup puts a hex on them and they all lose their faith and get drunk. The Jews get rich selling them the booze and move to Golders Green and the Bengalis take over the east end. Ethnic and religious cleansing by voodoo, got it?”
“You’re full of shit, Gerry.”
He laughs and leaves her standing in the hallway, slamming the door shut behind him. Alice goes back into her kitchen. She leans across the draining board to fill the kettle again and knocks a dirty glass with her elbow. It falls to the floor, shattering on impact.
Outside the sun has almost completely disappeared and soon it will rain, rain all day, and the courtyards and walkways will be quiet.
Alice watches television, eats toast and drinks tea.
Someone sees her down Roman Road market with the bruises on her face and they tell her sister.
“One day he’s going to kill you Alice.”
She comes round to the flat to find out what’s going on.
“I’m worried about my sister, Gerry.”
But Gerry doesn’t let her past the door.
“The house is infested with fleas,” he tells her, “you know, since the dog ran off? Best stay away. Alice is fine, fell over that’s all.” Then back indoors with the smile again and the running of fingers through her hair, softly stroking on the nape of her neck.
“I could kill you Alice, if I wanted to, and no one would care.”
Five dream people laughing in the early evening, brandies and coke and sitting by the window at a table facing the bar, Alice in the doorway wearing the Ativan veil, Toni’s plunging neckline in the big bevelled mirror behind the bar.
She wears a gold crucifix low-hanging on a braided chain. It catches a spark on Gerry’s sovereign ring and relays it back to the sleeper in her ear, completing a triangle. She fingers the chain as she speaks, smiling, rubbing her arm from time to time – a small insect bite there – as she shakes her loosely bubbled hair and sips drink from a pint glass.
Strawberry Fields Forever on the speakers and nothing forever no more. The song keeps revolving, revolving and repeating like a carnival carousel, contradictions whispering in a thousand undervoices, sneering and squinting at Alice through the smoke and the mist like tacky coloured bulbs at a funfair.
The bar buzz, the children screaming outside in the street, the devious pleasures and the false securities that bubble up through the brandy and the whisky and the vodka and the rum and the beer and the undervoices and the overvoices at once alien and lustily her own.
STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER.
And the song ends and the last notes echo. Alice and the Ativan veil still in the doorway, searching through the clamour for him.
And sometimes my head just spins, my mind is a city, a totalitarian state, an autarky whose economy depends on the currency of human secrets.
Then she finds him and he hears the words and the secret is a secret no more.
I DON’T WANT THIS, cries a torn voice that moments before had been loud and confident and laughing, before it sank and a blowsy jeer shaped shout loomed up in its place.
IT’S THE SAME EVERY TIME, EVERY F**KING TIME. WEAK LOUSY BASTARD.
Then the torn voice groans back to the surface, a twisted, ragged moan and the door slamns shut, footsteps disappearing and the jeer shaped shout:
“Hey Gerry, don’t linger in the moonlight too long, there’s a hangdog f**king moon out there tonight!”
“Moondog! It’s called a f**king moondog, when the clouds are over it that way.”
Leaning across the bar drooling over that slut, speaking his soft words to her. She can’t make out the words. So she pours some more vodka into her glass and empties it then repeats the whole thing like Strawberry Fields Forever. But she can’t taste it.
The music booms through the wall from the living room.
The drink tastes of nothing and she can’t make out the words, can’t hear those words he stole from her and gave to Toni but she follows the shapes his mouth makes in the big mirror, watches as the sleeper in her ear flashs, its ricochet sparking a corona on his ring as he sweeps back his hair from his forehead.
Her back in that mirror. That cow. Don’t linger in the f**king moonlight. The phrase echoes in her head and no one’s there to answer, so she swallows some more pills and fixes another drink.
It’s his indifference that hurts more than anything. It feels like dying: imagine a fear so intense as to make the sufferer too scared to face it, even to admit to it. She’s always been frightened, since she was a little girl, way back, when she first let the fear into her life. Now she embraces it. It has a space inside her, as if it is breath to her.
She’s in bed, smoking, her broken hair hard and ruined from too much hairspray. It has mixed with her sweat and solidified during the course of the night.
She stares at the room, at the bottle on the floor by the bed and her discarded underwear.
She reaches out, hoists up the bottle and drinks, then she lights a cigarette.
She’s been awake most of the night waiting for Gerry to come back, going over and over in her head what she’d say, twisting and turning, thinking from time to time that she might get up and have a bath.
The nuns used to say that a body always sleeps sounder when freshly scrubbed.
She gets up and pulls on a pair of green cotton cut-offs with broken belt loops and a torn pocket, pulls up the zipper, cigarette dangling, its smoke curling up into the stream of sunlight through the gap in the curtains and commingling with the dust.
The zipper traps her hair and stings her slightly but with only semi-conscious pain beneath the undertow of the vodka and the pills and a sleepless night.
A notion of a song in the sunlight lightly brushes her breasts with its beam and makes her think of softness, softness like a glow that is gently warming yet unsure in a cute kind of way, like a baby’s first smile, a baby like Gerry maybe, or a little Alice made of her trickle and his juice.
The photographs in an old National Geographic in Dr Leahy’s waiting room bring back something like memory to her. Leafing through its pages she recalls a child’s fingers and they become her own.
She poses in the mirror, head back swooning gently, brushing the hair back from her forehead, her eyes sinking back through teenage and misty, through the smiling lines, through the frost on the mirror, hair tingling at the middle of her back.
She fingers her small, neat breasts with their brown nipples. The dark hair beneath her belly peeks out above the half fastened zipper.
When the bump gets bigger will she still be able to see that?
She sighs. Her breasts sigh, the African women from the magazines, now trapped forever behind her eyes, sigh.
Because they are spent, sucked dry and desperate, disqualified from life, hopelessly drowning in mezuzah soup.